Roger Huerta proudly shows off his Sports Illustrated cover from May 2007.

CHICAGO, Ill. (March 15, 2010) Roger Huerta, the top free agent in MMA and one of the sport’s brightest young stars, announced today that he has signed an exclusive contract with Bellator Fighting Championships and will compete in the promotion’s upcoming Season 2 lightweight tournament.

The 26-year-old Huerta (20-3-1) comes to Bellator in the prime of his career after a 3½-year run in the UFC, where he rose to international prominence with wins over top talents like Clay Guida, Leonard Garcia and John Halverson and became the first MMA fighter ever to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Huerta, also known as “El Matador,” joins a well-rounded 155 lbs. tournament field that also includes Season 1 runner-up Toby Imada, former Olympian Ferrid Kheder, undefeated Canadian phenom Mike Ricci, European stalwart Janne Tulirinta, the undefeated Chad Hinton and former All-American wrestler Carey Vanier. Each tournament fight will be broadcast live in prime time on FOX Sports Net every Thursday night beginning April 8th and replayed in special highlight shows on NBC and Telemundo every Saturday night beginning April 10th.

If Huerta can win the April-May-June lightweight tournament, he would win the chance to challenge the world’s No. 2-rated lightweight and reigning Bellator World Champion Eddie Alvarez in a title bout this fall.

“The chance to be a part of this year’s Bellator tournament was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up,” Huerta said. “I think Bellator is the next big thing in this sport. I love the tournament format and the awesome talent that they have at 155 will give me a chance to prove myself as one of the top lightweights in the world.”

Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney, meanwhile, called Huerta “one of the most exciting and accomplished lightweights in the world.”

“Roger is truly a young man who has defied the odds to achieve greatness,” Rebney said.   “Adding Roger to our 155 division and tournament is a great signing for Bellator that provides us the ability to showcase him on national television upwards of three times before summer (provided he wins). His personal story is inspirational.  He has not had an easy road, but has fought hard and persevered.  It’s hard not to root for a guy who has triumphed over adversity like he has.”

Huerta suffered through a heartbreakingly difficult childhood. He was born in Los Angeles to Lydia and Rogelio Huerta, but the couple’s rocky relationship and struggles with substance abuse and mental illness soon began to take a toll on their son.

When Roger was around 5 years old, Lydia discovered that Rogelio was having an affair and took out her anger on Roger, subjecting him to emotional abuse and regular beatings that left him covered in bruises. Soon, this was discovered by his teachers and Roger was placed in a foster home.

Despite being stripped of custody, Lydia somehow managed to flee with her son to her native El Salvador, where she lived with Roger for more than a year as that country was embroiled a brutal civil war. Eventually she returned with Roger to the U.S. and dropped him at Rogelio’s house in Dallas. Roger never saw his mother again, but his troubles were far from over.

Over the next six years, he bounced back and forth between his father’s drug-infested house in Texas – where he was again subjected to regular beatings, this time at the hands of his father’s new wife—and Mexico, where he lived with his impoverished grandparents and was forced to sell picture frames and rosaries on the streets for hours a day.

At around the age of 12, he was kicked out of father’s house and found himself homeless, sleeping on rooftops and in alleyways and running with a notorious local youth gang. He stayed in school, though—mostly for the free breakfast and lunch.

By high school, he had left the gang and began living with the families of classmates in Austin, Texas. He became one of his school’s most popular students, excelled at sports (particularly wrestling), and, with the help of his English teacher, Jo Ramirez and his wrestling coach Bryan Ashford, won a wrestling scholarship from Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

It didn’t take Huerta long, though, to realize that his brawler-style fighting skills were better suited for the cage. He became fascinated with MMA after watching an Augsburg teammate’s amateur fight and soon began training with former UFC middleweight champion Dave Menne.

He took his first professional fight in 2003 while still a teenager, just a few months after he was legally adopted by Ramirez, the English teacher who helped change his life. She will be among the millions watching when Roger makes his Bellator debut next month.

“My one and only goal right now is getting through the lightweight tournament,” Huerta said. “I’m in the best shape of my life and I just can’t wait to get back in the cage. I see nothing but good things to come for me and for Bellator.”

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